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A Fireside Chat with William Parker


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Every year, it [the Vision Festival] has a political theme or an idea about a vision, how you would like the see the world change.
William Parker is the best bassist of my time. Whether or not people coming to terms with hard bop having ended with the Alfred Lion Blue Note days learn to appreciate Parker is not a question of if, but when. Parker's uncanny ability to make saxophonists that play alongside him better is akin to Jimmy Garrison and Henry Grimes. The latter, a lesson in the often, cruel neglectfulness of the times we live in, a bed we have made and one I lament daily. Parker, however, is in pursuit of a reverent spirituality, a catholic respect. Sounds familiar to John Coltrane devotees. But that is the grace of William Parker, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: We live in tenuous times when anxieties are understandably high. John Coltrane's spirituality has great relevance.

William Parker: I think it is very pertinent. I think if people had adopted and followed spiritual paths, we wouldn't be in such turmoil today. The world would be quite different. We would have a different perceptive on things. We would live different. We would look into each other's eyes and see a different vision. I think it was very important from the Sixties until now to lead a spiritual path because certain people led paths. They stayed out of the political agenda, hoping that things would balance out, but we left America in the hands of people who didn't listen to John Coltrane. Whereas, the people who did listen to John Coltrane were not interested in running for public office or becoming involved in the political arena.

FJ: Are musicians more spiritual than the average bear?

WP: The term 'spiritual' or 'spirituality' is a wide and broad subject. There is one idea that the guys on Wall Street, during lunch hour, would meditate on their moneybags. If you follow the trail, you see that the sneaker company, their sneakers are made by people in Vietnam or Cambodia and they are getting paid five cents an hour and they are selling the sneakers for three hundred dollars a pair. At lunchtime, they go jogging or they mediate and on Sundays, they go to a prayer service and when they are interviewed, they say that they are spiritual. What does that mean? Does that mean you believe in God when you want to and the rest of the time, you do what you want to do? Personally, I would say that artists tend to be closer to nature and closer to the creative part of the earth's vibrations and tend to think in terms of the betterment of human beings. For me, the most important part of spirituality is not what you do, whether you are a mailman, a doctor, a lawyer, or a musician. It is how you live your life and what you do everyday. That is the real test of your spirituality.

FJ: One of the many things I lament is four days before my scheduled with Peter Kowald, he passed. You had a close association with Kowald.

WP: Right, I met Peter Kowald around 1980 in New York. Peter was very, very, very personable. He would met musicians and non-musicians and talk and communicate and exchange numbers. If you were a musician, he would say, 'Let's play together.' If you were not a musician, he would say, 'Come to my concert. Here is a CD.' That was one level of him. He gave to people. He gave a lot of his energy. He set up tours for people. He would give instruments to people. However he could help a person, he would help them. Peter never spoke about spirituality. He just did things. As a musician, he was constantly working, constantly trying to play and develop his music. He was one force of perpetual motion. I can't even begin to name the things that he did throughout his career.

FJ: The Die Like a Dog Trio recently released a CD on Eremite dedicated to Kowald, Never Too Late But Always Too Early .

WP: Yeah, the project came out of a tour we did two years ago. We did a tour of the United States with the Die Like a Dog Trio: Peter Br'tzmann, Hamid Drake, and myself. The music came out of the first concert of the tour, which was Montreal.

FJ: It has come to my attention that the bass Henry Grimes is using was given to him by one William Parker.

WP: I received an email that Henry Grimes was not dead, that he was found, and he was living in LA, and that he showed interest in getting back to playing. I didn't respond at first because I thought there was lots of bass players in LA and it would probably be easier for him to get a bass in LA, which I think he would have eventually gotten if I wouldn't have sent that bass. Someone in LA would have eventually gotten him a bass somehow. I think a bass needs to be played. When an instrument is just sitting around and not being played, it just sort of dies and then the more you play it, the better it sounds because the wood begins to vibrate and the molecules begin to spread. Instruments need to be played. They really don't need to be lying around dormant.

FJ: And you named the bass?

WP: When I got the bass, it was a regular colored bass. I stripped the bass and I refinished it in a green color, an olive green finish and I called it Olive Oil.

FJ: Tell me about the Raining on the Moon project.

WP: I guess since the Seventies, I have always written music and written words with the music. It wasn't until the Nineties that I began to really do CDs and recording the music that I have been working on. The Raining on the Moon project came out of an extension of a record I put out called O'Neal's Porch, which was a quartet record that did very well. It was an independent record produced on Centering. It is the same O'Neal's Porch quartet plus the vocalist Leena Conquest. I have written all of the material and the lyrics. It's sort of a different sound. It has folk elements. It's an album where the rhythmical aspects and melodic aspects are separated from the color spectrum of sound. It is not as dense. It is more accessible to people.

FJ: And the latest project with your Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, Raincoat in the River?

WP: That was taken from a concert we did. We did two nights, one in Amherst and one in Boston, Massachusetts. We tapped into some different areas. The idea for the piece comes from two sources. One, it is dedicated to saxophonist Marvin Nunez, who was a saxophonist, who always dealt in sub-tone music, music that was very soft and very quiet when he played. You could hardly hear what he was doing when he played. There was that idea, in exploring sub-tones, which I use a shakuhachi and a cello. And then the other part of it was the childhood idea of guns into trumpets. When I was a child, we would get these Mattel guns for Christmas, but me and my brother would always turn the guns around and blow into them like they were trumpets. We would always play jam sessions. We would never play cowboys and Indians. Those are the two parts that this comes from and there is also a part dedicated to Marion Brown, who lives in a senior citizen's home, up in the Bronx. I visit Marion from time to time. He is actually another person that would be nice to get back on the music scene.

FJ: Age, physical or financial ailments, musicians never retire.

WP: Oh, yeah, I think everybody that is involved with something they love in life, they don't ever want to stop doing it. Retirement really equals death when you are a musician. You really want to play until you can't play anymore or be creative in some kind of way. If you can't physically play, you write. You do something involved in music because that is what you have done all your life.

FJ: And lastly, your recording with Joe Morris and Hamid Drake, Eloping with the Sun .

WP: I have been playing this instrument called the zintir. It is a bass from Morocco. I have been playing that the last three or four years. There is actually a track on Raincoat in the River that wasn't released. Maybe that will be released later. Joe was dealing with the banjo and Hamid is a very, very good frame drum player. I had played duets with Joe and duets with Hamid, so we just sort of just blended this concept together and recorded that music that afternoon. That project has great potential to grow into something much bigger than what we just released. Its growth potential is great.

FJ: Is the Vision Festival still without corporate funding?

WP: Yes, it is definitely without corporate funding. Until you can find a corporation that doesn't want to control the festival because corporations tend to want to change the Vision Festival into the Texaco Festival or the Heineken Festival or the Verizon Festival. That just changes the whole nature of what you are trying to do. If you are going to get corporate money, you want clean money, if that is possible. You also want money that doesn't change the nature of the festival. It is not about advertising.

FJ: What is your outlook for the festival?

WP: My wife, Patricia, really started the festival. The festival was started as an outgrowth of the Improvisers Collective, which was a group of improvisers, dancers, and poets who would get together and we would do concerts every week. One thing about the Vision Festival is that it is multimedia. It has dance. It has music. It has poetry, which is a little different than most jazz festivals. It has a theme. Every year, it has a political theme or an idea about a vision, how you would like the see the world change. It opens every year with an invocation by Joseph Jarman, who is a Buddhist monk.

FJ: I am a selfish man and want to see something like that on the left coast.

WP: It hasn't gotten that much heavy duty publicity, but the festival last year was three weeks, which is very, very long for a festival. Before that, it was two weeks and this year, it is a week. You have people from all over the world coming because it fills a void. In New York now, there is no other. The Knitting Factory doesn't have a festival anymore. There is really no festival like it. The word just spread. You hear people that you won't hear at any festival. This year, singer Patty Waters is singing and she hasn't sung in New York in thirty years. You also hear people like Fred Anderson from Chicago. He comes here once a year to play and he plays at the Vision Festival. Kidd Jordan from New Orleans comes. We have had Bill Dixon. We have had orchestra pieces, small group pieces. We've had dance and music collaborations. We have had painters and sculptures and it has grown and is now established. Every year, people look forward to it.

FJ: Can I let the cat out of the bag and break that Grimes may be there this year?

WP: Yeah, we don't have a definite, definite on that, but we are working on that. That is all I can say about that just yet.

FJ: What do you foresee the theme of the festival will be this year?

WP: Last year, it was 'Vision against violence.' The theme this year is 'avant-jazz peace.' It is a extension from last year and it is a statement for world peace. I think it would have been a very nice accomplishment that when we reached the year 2000, for human beings to have world peace. That would have been a really big, nice celebration. But we reached the year 2000 and I really didn't see anything to celebrate because we hadn't accomplished that much. We had computers and we have cell phones, but we are still killing each other. They have to resolve that and then get cell phones.

FJ: And the future?

WP: Little Huey has a new record coming out on Splasc(h) Records called Spontaneous, which will be out in May. We don't work as much as we used to because I have been on the road, but I am trying to pick that up. I have a record called Scrapbook. That will be a violin trio record with myself on bass, Billy Bang, violin, and Hamid Drake on drums. It will be out on Thirsty Ear and that will be out in June. We are planning a tour in November. We are going to San Francisco and maybe we can get to LA. I will put in a bid.

Related Links
Vision Festival Links @ AAJ (interviews, news, galleries)

Photo Credit
Susan O'Connor (black & white)
Frank Rubolino (color)

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